Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Friday, August 20, 2010

Fatima Bhutto: Edinburgh Book Festival 15 August 2010

Fatima Bhutto belongs to a famous Pakistani political dynasty: her grandfather was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, imprisoned and murdered by General Zia ul-Haq (and immortalised, warts and all, by Salman Rushdie as Iskander Harappa in his novel Shame). Her aunt was Benazir Bhutto, also a victim of a political assassination. This much I knew before I saw her. I hadn't realised that her father Mir Murtaza Bhutto had been murdered by a police death squad. Hardly surprising, then, that one of her themes was the "tradition" of political assassination in Pakistan, by all parties, as a way of settling scores and removing opponents. Her latest book Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter's Memoir pulls no punches, nor did she in her talk.

Fatima Bhutto is an extraordinary woman by any standards. For a woman living in Pakistan as a member of a high-profile family, her courage and candour are extraordinary. It goes without saying that she receives death threats. This is a woman who is prepared to say that David Cameron was right about the Pakistani government's ambivalent attitude to terror; who is prepared to say that the problem of Islamic terror in Pakistan has been made much worse by US policy, especially the policy of arming the mujahideen against the USSR in the late 1970s and early 1980s; and who is not afraid to call a spade a spade, or the spectacularly corrupt Musharraf government a spectacularly corrupt government. Benazir was a favourite auntie and they used to be close, but Fatima does not hesitate to point out that grandfather Zulfikar Ali made the only serious attempt to address Pakistan's huge inequality of wealth by limiting landholdings, a reform which Benazir reversed when she came to power so that the gap between the billionaires and the shanty-dwellers was restored. Nor does she flinch from mentioning that Benazir authorised the police death squads whose "clean-up" operations included her father's murder, and indeed applauded ther zeal. The Bhutto name may gain Fatima an audience, but she has no interest in Bhutto hagiography or in a political career for herself. She's a writer and a writer she will stay.

Her talk went all too quickly. We learned that the best chance for peace between India and Pakistan (and indeed Iran) had been the proposed natural gas pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan. This would have gained India gas it needed, given Iran a market for its excess gas, and brought Pakistan in an income from both. There would have been incentives for peaceful co-operation all round. In the even the scheme came to nothing because the USA disapproved, and bribed Pakistan to scupper the deal by offering it nuclear technology (just the kind Iran is now developing). We learned that endemic corruption means that almost none of the vast amount of aid money poured into Pakistan by the USA, UK, EU and others reaches its destination, and also how this in turn fuels fundamentalism and terror. (If your village has no government-supplied scholl because a warlord has pocketed the money, then the Taleban and their kind provide the only opportunity to read and write, and get to guide your education and your children's.) She did stress that although any money supplied directly to the government would mysteriously (or not so mysteriously really) vanish, donations given to Oxfam, War on Want, and especially the Red Cross/Red Crescent were accounted for properly and reached their destination.

A fascinating hour.

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